Obama’s Refusal to Play the Lame Duck Affects the Clinton Campaign

A few months ago, Ron Brownstein got a fascinating quote from an Obama advisor.

One senior Obama adviser says the administration “To Do list” after 2012 included thinking “about how you lock in the Obama coalition for Democrats going forward. Because it’s not a 100 percent certainty that they come out for the next Democrat.” Part of the answer, the adviser said, was to pursue aggressive unilateral action on “a set of issues where we have an advantage … and believe are substantively the right thing to do” and dare Republicans to oppose him.

That came in the midst of a several bold moves by President Obama following the 2014 midterms that surprised Republicans – who were expecting a contrite lame duck for his remaining two years in office. And its why last week Greg Sargent wrote this:

If Obama gets his way, two of the most important pieces of his legacy — an Iran deal, and a global climate treaty — will involve comprehensive international settlements. Hillary Clinton will all but certainly support an eventual Iran deal, and she’s already pledged to protect all of Obama’s climate actions “at all cost.” Thus, she will be for international engagement as the solution to two of the most pressing problems the country faces: The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, and climate change. Meanwhile, on Iran and climate, the eventual 2016 GOP presidential nominee will probably have pledged to undo whatever Obama has achieved — locking him on both fronts into a position of staunch opposition to international engagement.

While Sargent only mentioned the Iran deal and a potential global climate change agreement in Paris later this year, we can add things like President Obama’s executive action on immigration and his normalization of our ties to Cuba as issues that will likely shape the agenda for the 2016 presidential race.

What is interesting about all this is how it changes the historical narrative so often cited lately about how difficult it has been for a party to win the presidency after a two-term leader from their own party. The modern-day precedent has typically been set by presidents who found themselves embroiled in scandals during their second term – which contributed to their lame-duckness (Reagan with Iran/Contra, Clinton with impeachment and Bush with Iraq/financial crisis). The dynamics will be very different this time around.

And so it should come as no surprise that – as Chozick, Haberman and Martin point out – Hillary Clinton has decided to run on President Obama’s record rather than triangulate between he and Republicans.

Rather than run from Mr. Obama, she intends to turn to him as one of her campaign’s most important allies and advocates — second only, perhaps, to her husband, the other president whose record will hover over her bid…

Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, said that she “is proud of what was accomplished, both as President Obama’s partner on critical issues of national security, and on the progress made on the domestic front” and that “a campaign would be about laying out her own vision for tackling our toughest challenges.”

Given the current political dynamics, that is a very good move.

But it leaves the Clinton campaign with one remaining challenge – how to address the problem of gridlock and polarization that has plagued Congress and its relationship with the President. The truth is, there’s not a good answer to that question. The only way Hillary can present herself as someone who can change that is to suggest that it is at least partially President Obama’s fault. Only the truly deluded or completely uninformed believe that.

An alternative for Hillary would be to name Republican obstruction outright and promise to challenge it head-on. There are those on the left who would love to hear that kind of message and think that President Obama’s major failures have been linked to his unwillingness to throw harder punches at the opposition. But that doesn’t seem to be a risk the Clinton camp is prepared to take.

Walking a fine line, Mrs. Clinton will try to present herself as more capable of working across the aisle than the current administration, without directly criticizing Mr. Obama.

What is fascinating about all of this is to think about the way the relationship between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has been shaping so much of our politics since 2008. We are still 18 months from the next presidential election and its clear that Obama is going to play through to the buzzer. More than a primary opponent, Hillary’s campaign will largely be shaped by that reality.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.